British researchers have revealed that the feeling of being watched made people behave more honestly, even though the eyes may not be for real.
A Newcastle University team found that people put nearly three times as much money into an “honesty box” when they were being watched by a pair of eyes on a poster, compared with a poster that featured an image of flowers.
Researchers state that the eye pictures were probably influential because the brain naturally reacts to images of faces and eyes, and that people were subconsciously co-operating with the honesty box when it featured pictures of eyes.
They also say the findings show how people behave differently when they believe they are being watched because they are worried what others will think of them.
An honesty box relies on people’s honesty to pay a specified price for goods or services with no cashier to check if they are doing so.
This had been operating in a university common room used by 48 staff for many years, so users had no reason to suspect an experiment was taking place.
A poster above the box listed prices of tea, coffee and milk. It also featured an image banner across the top, and this alternated each week between different pictures of flowers and eyes.
The eye pictures varied in the sex and head orientation but were all chosen so the eyes were looking directly at the observer.
The findings could have applications in initiatives to curb anti-social behaviour or in law enforcement perhaps in areas such as payment for public transport, road safety or the general issue of behaviour in public places.
Lead author of the study, Melissa Bateson, a Royal Society research fellow based at Newcastle University, said, "Our findings suggest that people are less likely to be selfish if they feel they are being watched, which has huge implications for real life.
"For example, this could be applied to warnings about speed cameras.
A sign bearing an image of a camera would have to be actively processed by our brains, as it is an artificial stimulus. Our research and previous studies suggest drivers would react much more quickly and positively to natural stimuli such as eyes and faces," Bateson added.
The group now hopes to expand the study to involve a larger sample population.